How many times has the world observed an Israeli-Palestinian handshake and breathed a sigh of relief that hostilities in that sliver of the Middle East finally appeared to be ending? The answer, of course, is far too often for the latest declaration of peace to promise much. Camp David, the Rose Garden, Oslo, Sharm el-Sheikh Round 1: All those meetings and accords came and went, and still the blood flowed — if anything, more copiously. And yet there are signs that this week’s truce, also reached at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, just might be the one that holds. Now comes the hard part.
A history of disappointment is not the only reason the rejoicing over this summit seems muted and the expressions of hope so cautious. As observers emphasized Tuesday, what came out of Sharm el-Sheikh was a security accord, not a peace accord; a simple truce, not the complex blueprint required for a permanent reconciliation. Both sides pledged to halt attacks, no more, no less. After more than four years of murderous violence in which there has never been a bilateral ceasefire, that is a huge step. But it is very much a first step.
Still to be addressed are the differences that triggered hostilities in the first place, including such fraught issues as the status of Jerusalem, the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees, the Israeli-built security barrier and the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. There is also a potential stumbling block in disagreements over which Palestinian prisoners Israel is willing to release, when and how many.
The significance of the summit is that it opens the door to a state of affairs in which these problems can once again be discussed. No hint was offered Tuesday of how they might be resolved, nor any assurance that they will be. But the tacit acknowledgment existed that negotiating, not fighting, offers the only chance that they might be — someday, somehow.
In the context of the latest intifada, which has claimed more than 4,000 lives and outlasted 10 Palestinian ceasefires since it exploded in September 2000, that counts as a breakthrough. Hence the mood of cautious optimism, the sense that this time round, things might be different.
There are reasons to be hopeful. One is simply the palpable war-weariness of both peoples, which came to a head following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last November. For all the public demonstrations of grief, Arafat was almost as widely mistrusted by his own people for his cronyism and corruption as he was by the Israelis and the Americans for his deviousness. There was no doubting Palestinians’ mood for change and willingness to try a new path as they got out the vote for presidential and municipal elections in December and January. In fact, the absence of Arafat is the second main reason to put skepticism on hold for a while.
His freshly elected successor, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, has already learned that the job comes packaged with suspicion. Even before he took office last month the Israelis were accusing him of pandering to Palestinian militants, while the militants were deriding him as a stooge of Israel. Yet after a hesitant start, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon evidently decided he could do business with Mr. Abbas, and the hardliners in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, so far, are still talking to him. The Palestinian establishment and the wider public also appear supportive. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Mr. Abbas’ ability to maintain this knife-edge balance.
In their parallel pledges at Sharm el-Sheikh, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Sharon sensibly acknowledged that mutual restraint was the only way out of the cycle of aggression and retaliation. Mr. Sharon pledged to end targeted attacks on wanted Palestinian militants and military incursions into Palestinian territory, provided the militants are kept under control. Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, committed the Palestinian Authority to refrain from violence and pledged that its security forces would work with Israel’s to help prevent militant attacks.
The militants’ reaction, therefore, is key, but it is also the great unknown in this potentially rosy picture. Mr. Abbas can pledge all he likes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The question remains how much weight his words carry with the bombers and gunmen. Hamas did not pledge anything, Islamic Jihad did not pledge anything, and their representatives have issued mixed responses to the summit.
This truce is at once as strong and as fragile as a spider web, unbreakable only if all parties concerned step carefully. If the militants end up seeing it as a trap, not a bond, a single Qassam rocket or suicide bomber could smash it in a second.
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